The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Narrative

Looking Forward: Chimurenga Renaissance

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Quivver and Alexius are sipping/lapping red wine on the porch. Springtime is coming, and the snow has finally bowed out, rain coming down to replace it. Eventually, all traces of the silver world will be erased, and the early brown, ramshackle spring days will start. 

Alexius: What was the last leg of the tour again? Mars?

Quivver: Yeah, we managed to get a show on the Red Planet. Sponsored by NASA and everything. Would have been a huge endorsement in the 1960s, but hey. It’s work. Not like it means anything to us right now. Since we got free of our confinement in hell, we’ve been on a stellar trajectory.

Alexius: Takes a lot longer to get from here to Alpha Centauri than Mars.

Quivver: Yeah, but we’d have so much time just to chill out and play tunes, you know? I’d have days and weeks just to work on my beats. Quake could bring his keys along, and we’d jam until…well, there would be no day and night, so all the time.

Alexius: I doubt there’d be enough music to last the whole centuries-long trip.

Quivver: Not if we took all our equipment. By the time we made it to Alpha Centauri, we’d have forgotten who we were when we made the first songs. At that point, we could just listen to that. One of the benefits of being creative with almost infinite time to create on cheap equipment.

Alexius: And I suppose you’d just invent new instruments if you got bored enough.

Quivver: Speaking of being bored and having a lot of time on your hands, you know there are over 200 posts on this blog, right?

Alexius: Yes, though I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss about it.

Quivver shakes her head. Alexius puts his head on her lap and she strokes his ears.

Quivver: You know what this moment needs?

Alexius: (I know what she’s going to say.) What?

Music, of course.

Chimurenga Renaissance includes Palaceer Lazaro, whose album Black Up–recorded as Shabazz Palaces–was one of the very first reviews I posted here. The other member of the group is Baba Maraire, who takes the centre stage in this act. He carries most of the raps and brings his experience in Zimbabwean music to this unique group, whose first LP, riZe vadZimu riZe, is due out on the 25th of this month.

So far, the group has only released a single track from the new album, “The B.A.D. Is So Good,” which is posted above. I would also recommend looking at the group’s website, which explains the origins of the group’s name and its connection to anti-imperialist struggle in Zimbabwe.

From the site:

True, the economic situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated considerably since the end of the 80s and the implementation of Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and reinforced by the Washington Consensus3– Zimbabwe should never have opened its fragile, war-torn economy to the world market and cut government spending, but instead committed to targeted internal development and the very same industrial policies that advanced countries like the United States technologically4. Nevertheless, despite how things have turned out so far, despite the setbacks, despite the economic challenges, our ancestors were not wrong to challenge Cecil Rhodes and European imperialism. They were morally in the right, and anyone who is politically and spiritually aligned with them is also in the right. Many have betrayed this spirit of rebellion, but this does not mean our ancestors were wrong to fight for their rights5 and land6. Indeed, Maraire’s fiery rap track “Boom”7 is all about his fidelity to the political project initiated by his ancestors, the project of establishing once and for all black justice and independence.

Given who is involved and the abundance of passion and skill poured into this project, I am anticipating great things.

Thank you for sticking with me and my editor through over 200 posts. I never though I would reach nearly as many people as I have. I remember feeling giddy when my friends and fellow students would read it. For now, this is Alexius the tiger letting you know that plenty more is coming to this site. I’m hoping to make it far beyond the next 200 posts.

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Fathers and Sons: Romanticized Radicalism

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Alexius returns home from a day stalking pigeons in the park. He was nearly arrested and had to show his stalking license to the authorities. “Just pin in on your ears next time,” the cop said. What is it with humans and attaching pointy things to animals’ ears. It’s almost like we’re not people.

Alexius: Gah!

Mr. Harold Zo: What’s up, my striped friend?

Alexius: Russian literature is the cause of my current outburst.

Mr. Harold Zo: I remember my undergraduate days fondly (Editor’s Note: his graduate school days were far less memorable, I am sorry to say). Russian lit was always one of my favourite classes. What gives?

Alexius throws a copy of Fathers and Sons onto the couch before sliding effortlessly onto the couch. He cuts a stark and sensual picture in the bare apartment. Where are they? And where is the rest of the band?

Mr. Harold Zo: Looks like your editor is at the door asking impertinent questions again. Should I tell him to buzz off?

Alexius: We’re not on speaking terms right now. I’m currently furious with all human beings for exterminating my kind. He deserves to wither out there in the cold.

Mr. Harold Zo: Speaking of the cold, I thought we were talking about Russian literature.

Alexius: Ah, yes. Precisely. You see, I think there’s a way in which liberals like to romanticize radicals, and I see this more and more as I get older and closer to death.

Mr. Harold Zo: Par example, s’il vous plait?

Alexius: Let’s take this book right here. Fathers and Sons. It’s Ivan Turgenev. Classic Russian literature. It concerns this one Bazarov, a nihilist who abjures all beliefs and traditions. He dedicates his days to working on dissections and medicine, learning chemistry and so on. He picks up this friend named Arkady, an aristocratic hanger-on who thinks that Bazarov is a cool cat. So Arkady brings Bazarov back to his father’s dilapidated estate to hang out with some of the upper crust. Bazarov agrees, but realizes that his friend’s nihilism is as authentic as Uncle Pavel’s English tailored suits. By the end, Turgenev has forced Bazarov to repudiate his beliefs by falling in love with a Russian ice princess. Well, she’s a idle widow, but who cares to distinguish when it comes to the useless upper class?

Mr. Harold Zo: Right.

Alexius: (sneezes) In any case, Turgenev not only makes Bazarov a hypocrite, which is fair enough, but also kills him off with a bad case of typhus. At the end, the author inserts this laughably romantic liturgy for the fallen nihilist, talking about eternal life and reconciliation and how beautiful his parents’ tears are and so on. In other words, the book treats Bazarov as a fallen, tragic individualist. His mission to transform society is depicted as utterly hopeless, his personal integrity is constantly undermined through authorial fiat (which is fair as far as it goes), and at the end he’s given an almost mystical eulogy.

Mr. Harold Zo: So are you saying that he makes this Bazarov into a total bastard?

Alexius: That’s precisely it. He isn’t, but the only traits we are supposed to find redeemable are romantic ones. He rejects tradition, he’s an individualist, he tenders a passionate love in his (gulp) bosom, and ends up dead. What I mean is that the only way liberals can like revolutionaries is if they’re dead. Their convictions are chalked up to tragic personality flaws and as long as they are atomized rebels who don’t accomplish much, or can be turned into kitsch symbols (see: Che), liberals want nothing to do with them.

Trotsky is a good example. Mark my words: without that icepick, he would never have become Orwell’s little darling. All the liberals who fawn over Animal Farm as if it accurately represents the history of the Soviet Union wouldn’t be pining about “oh, if only Trotsky had won.” I mean, there are Trotskyists, and obviously they don’t treat Trotsky that way. At least hopefully not. I’m talking about liberal liberals here, capitalists par excellence who prefer their revolutionaries served with an icepick or a spot of typhus. They’re easily romanticized as rebels with a hopeless cause. Another blogger I like to read has discussed this before. Rebellion and so on are all well and good as long as you leave everything the way you found it.

Mr. Harold Zo: Well, I certainly understand where you’re coming from, but I hope you won’t hurt me when I tell you I have a Che poster in my room.

Alexius: How old are you? (Gets up off the couch and leaves, dragging his editor back to their house with his teeth.)

Mr. Harold Zo: Ah, he’ll get over it. If my species were going extinct, I would act the same way.

Angels Have Critics?

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Mr. Harold Zo, when we last met him, had had a rather odd encounter with a group of wandering angels. Their purposes obscure, it ends up they had whisked him away to a stadium gig in the Empyrean Heaven, which is a few city blocks from the choking wreckage of Tiger Heaven. Celestial property values had plummeted ever since that incident.

Mr. Harold Zo: How are we going to measure up to a whole crowd of angels? Aren’t the choirs of heaven supposed to be achingly beautiful? We’re mad to even try.

Quivver: If they are angels, I’m sure they’re going to be forgiving sorts of folk. I can’t imagine we’ll get a raw deal on pay, either. Relax. Breathe. Just play your guitar and we’ll have this over with in no time.

Quake: I agree.

Mr. Harold Zo: OK, fine. Let’s just go out and do this. Dammit! Except that we forgot the amps. Just noticed that. How could we have done that?

Quake: I’ve been meaning to tell you: we lost them somewhere between the level of the moon and the fires of Purgatory.

Mr. Harold Zo: Great, great, great, great. OK, so it’ll be an acoustic-electronic set. I hope they at least have outlets up here.

Suffice to say that their show went over like a lead balloon, or so the saying goes. Photography and all journalism was forbidden at the show, though a couple of bootlegs did manage to leak out. It became the subject of an investigation by the Divine Council, Subcommittee on Arts and Copyright.

Though they tried their hardest, the band was clearly not heavenly material. The angels who had spirited them away to begin with scoffed and refused to even acknowledge them. It was so bright in there that no one knew what was going on. After receiving an admittedly lucrative payment from a gruff accountant angel, Zo, Quivver, and Quake was escorted back to their tour van.

An angel critic knocks on their door. They open it and radiant light shines through. They quickly usher their guest in and have him seated. Thick blinds dull the searing rays of Empyrea somewhat, but all of the band members are still outfitted in dark sunglasses. Both for style and function, of course.

Angel Critic: Don’t you find twilight such an invigorating time in history? Why, it sings through my very veins.

Mr. Harold Zo: I’m afraid that I’m not acquainted with you.

Angel Critic: I’m an angelic music critic, delivering messages of cultural import to the various Subcommittees who employ me.

Mr. Harold Zo: What’s the point when God runs the whole business?

Angel Critic: Ah, like most humans, you are terribly late in catching on. In case you haven’t noticed, the real estate around here has taken a real hit. Honestly, this used to be such a great neighborhood before housing prices started spiking up. And now we’re living through a slump, the inevitable backlash. No one wants to buy in Empyrea, so we’ve been forced to abide in lesser celestial realms. Many of us, like the ones who brought you here, are wanderers, perpetual drifters through the material universe.

Mr. Harold Zo: Right, since Tiger Heaven collapsed.

Angel Critic: But I haven’t talked about God yet. Well, that’s probably for the better. You’re all familiar with God, I take it?

Quake: Not a personal acquaintance, but we’ve had some pleasant intercourse.

Quivver: Oh, shut up. Never knew him, though I have heard rumors. Few people on Earth can ever shut up about him.

Angel Critic: Oy. Yes, well. Let’s just say that if the divine one were still around, we wouldn’t need a sprawling bureaucracy just to ensure basic communication services throughout the universe. Honestly, you should see the payroll the Subcommittee on Cosmic Discourse.

Quake: I see. So when we come back to Earth, we can say we have confirmation of God’s nonexistence? Angel Critic cocks its head and gives a quizzical look. Well, at least non-efficacy?

Angel Critic: That would be fair to say. Thanks for the show, by the way. You’ve been a great help to us, despite the difficulties we were all seeing.

Mr. Harold Zo: I’m glad you noticed, but I’m not eager to discuss them. Could you get to the point? I would like to get back to Earth in time for Christmas.

Angel Critic: Quite right, quite right. I will be quick. While the rabble here have all dismissed you as charlatans and, quite frankly, bad singers, I think you have something revolutionary here. I plan on sending out a message to this effect.

Quivver: Great. But why do you need to bother us to do that?

Quake: Shh.

Mr. Harold Zo: No, it’s a valid question.

Angel Critic: Right. I wanted to say sorry, to console you. I know that it’s hard playing such a rough crowd, and I wanted to make sure you were doing fine.

Mr. Harold Zo: Well, you’re certainly the only conscientious angel we’ve met for a long time. Everyone else seems to be hell-bent on drafting us into one gig or another. Is that all?

Angel Critic: Afraid so. What I want to make sure of is that you are invited back, and this time allotted proper equipment and a crew. It is the mission of the critic to assist artists in whatever manner he or she can.

Mr. Harold Zo: Great. Now, can you get out of our van?

Angel Critic: We’re not all as bad as we seem. It’s just that we’re somewhat…confused right now.

Quake: Thank you.

The angel nods goodbye to everyone and exits silently.

At that moment, the van fell from the heavens into the depths of space. The light faded, and I, Alexius, noticed a meteorite  streaking in the sky. I watched as it landed in my backyard, considerably slowed by a large parachute.

Alexius: This gives me an idea for a piece I need to write. I sure hope they survived.

Angels Visit Mr. Harold Zo

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All at once the tour van was light. Mr. Harold Zo awoke and looked around. Quivver and Quake were sound asleep, but the radiance blinded him, his heart pushing blood through his body desperately. A figure dressed in a whirl–leather jacket, feather-spoked hat, dark glasses, and a long skirt that trailed down to its ankles, bound by a studded belt–stood in the source of the brightness. Its hair jutted up like the tip of the craziness iceberg, scraping against the ceiling. Harold found his slotted shades and regarded the figure, the glasses improving his vision for once and not merely his appearance.

“Good evening, Mr. Harold Zo,” it said, “I assume you know what this is about.”

“I am a-a-afraid not,” Zo said. His words kept getting caught at the back of his throat, partially due to nighttime dryness and partially out of astonishment. Though it was warm there, his teeth chattered. Some irreverent pop song was–confound it!–stuck in his head again.

“Please excuse my spectacular entrance, but I thought a man in show business would appreciate it.”

Zo considered. “It was certainly spectacular, though I’m not sure to what purpose. The bus has a door.”

“Never got in the habit of using them. I understand, though, that you had a rather long sojourn in the land of the dead. Is this true?” Mr. Harold shivered and blinked. Heart racing and hands sweating as they gripped the sides of his seat, his body was in a state of minor shock. His mind was surprisingly clear considering the ungodly hour, but it did him little good since he could hardly speak. His earlier eloquence surprised him in retrospect.

He said to the figure, “For awhile, those were the only audiences we could get. Plus it was part of the deal.”

The figure sat on Quivver’s unconscious jacket-covered lump. Let’s just call it an angel, since we’re all perfectly literate here. The light dimmed slightly, and  Mr. Harold began to calm down. He was still surprised when he was able to stand up and walk to grab a half-finished water bottle from the seat in front of him, but by the time he returned a few seconds later he was acclimated to this bizarre situation.

The angel smiled cryptically, saying, “It’s about time you got word from us. You’ve been in league with the devil for some time now.”

“That just makes me a rock star,” Harold said.

The angel laughed. “True enough. But just because you’re not unique doesn’t really earn you any favours. Either with critics or with us. Now let me tell you why I’m here. I’m here to tell you that you’re just fine with us. We’re not out to void your deal or take away your skills. As a matter of fact, we’re looking for some advice. Well, first I’m asking for some advice, then we have something to tell you.”

“What advice do you need from me? Unless it’s advice about ruining your academic career or slick guitar shreds. If you’re thinking of putting a band together up there, I could recommend a good bassist I used to know rather intimately.”

Celestial beings, as we know, have a rather stunted sense of humour, owing to their natural perfection. Their taste in clothing is likewise impaired, and they are an eccentric bunch all told. Especially since no one can really tell them what to do. The angel sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m afraid I’ll never understand your sarcasm, though I think I’m getting better at it. The question I have is this: what are some good songs about what you call existential distress? We want to know the weight of the world. It sounds like a good topic for some party jams.”

It should also be noted that angels tend to regard human suffering with a sense of detached amusement, thinking of our affairs as museum pieces, the planets as glass display cases. We’re far from the only life in this universe, of course, but angels tend to like us because, unlike most extraterrestrial beings, we complain so damn much.

“That’s quite enough of the narration,” the angel said, correctly. “Lay them on me. And quickly. We need to have the CD burned and over to my friend’s house in a a few days, and arranging playlists is not an art for the impatient.”

“What songs do you have already?” said Mr. Harold Zo. Sleep weighed heavily on his eyes. His demeanor turned from annoyance to aggravation as the angel continued to talk. Part of it was the voice. It was the disinterested voice of a being without anything to do, no schedule to keep, nothing to do other than dispense random quests to credulous people who thought they would be cast into hellfire if they failed. In reality, the angels probably forgot about them a couple of days after they met.

“Not sure. All I know is that we need two.”

Harold took a crumpled receipt from his pocket, scribbled down two titles, and handed it to the angel, who stuffed it into his enormous studded belt.

“If you don’t look at them, you’re liable to forget why I gave them to you. At least look at them once.”

“Yes, you’ve had dealings with our kind before. Of the more diabolical sort, but still. We all fall from the same tree, as you people say.”

The two songs were:

Harold said, “What about your side?”

“These are fine songs.”

And so they are. Jaimeo Brown and Matana Roberts, two of the true voices, would lend their presence to the playlist in the celestial realm. Probably be forgotten by such capricious ears and fickle, dulled minds. But still their work would ring out.

The angel looked back up at Harold and said, “You should quit being a rock star and focus on saving the world. Why are these people so sad? You should work on that.”

With that, and a colossal boom the angel disappeared, waking up the other two just in time to catch a glimpse of the fashion disaster from heaven exiting the tour van. Harold Zo looked at Quivver and Quake’s startled, uncomprehending faces, their narrow brows and exhaustion-strained eyes.

“Maybe he’s right. Except he’s also a jerk and a clown.”

Quivver rolled her eyes.

“Look at how we dress on stage. Do you think we’re ever right at least once?”

“Even a broken clock…”

“Should we become superheroes or something?”

“Angels aren’t worth listening to, at least not after tiger heaven blew to shreds and made them go all nutso.”

“Still, he was kind in asking my advice. Does that mean I have some kind of musical knowledge?”

“Go back to sleep.”

They all slept. In the morning, they went out searching for Alexius. It was time to start saving the world.

Arca: “&&&&&”

Further and further into the jungle now. Every turn leads me down the stranger path.

I try to avoid                                   IT                 ,,,,,              but IT keeps traveling along the same line, as though we

are both bound to the the same rail network.

(And I cannot begin to tell you what IT might be. I know that IT steps in the same footprints as I do, and invariably follows me. I feel it and see it through my own eyes, but it is more like a fabric stitched into me, almost at random, than a sheath over my body.)

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And it’s no surprise. This is the most heavily patronized rail network in the world, helping 9 billion people connect one point in history to another. Steel rails scrape the ocean, furrow their way through forests, wind around cities. Metaphors biological–arteries, nerves, intestines–and inorganic–circuits, rivers, abstract lines–come immediately to mind. Yet there is no point, it seems, in reaching for inorganic images to try to illustrate railways.

I imagine that I have leapt onto a train, left the ground on one end of the country and, when I step back onto that piece of ground, I have somehow returned.

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Yet, like blood cells, I have an expiration date. Like veins, the places over which we travel are endlessly reconfigured. It is in the shifting sands of the desert and the endless turmoil of the Atlantic Ocean that we perceive the true nature of our situation.

I stepped off the train back in Mumbai, and, though the airport was still there and the plane that carried me back over to the United States operated on the same principles as the one that carried me here,  I know that nothing is the same. Though my journey to find my own origin ended in failure, it has still left me changed. Why, though, is everything in my environment so uncannily convenient? The name of what I am feeling has a fearful name. It’s paranoia, the feeling that I am under constant surveillance, that I am being dispersed and exhibited for someone else’s benefit. Tigers can’t really talk, can they?

On the plane home, I listened to Arca’s new 25-minute release “&&&&&,” whose enigmatic name conforms precisely to the shape of the music it names. Chopped-up, titanic basslines overwhelm my headphones. The rhythms are uncertain and ambiguous at times. While the track is aimed at the body, its buildups and climaxes tend to stack on each other without a comforting structure, and it leaves me with a curious feeling of awe. Its beauty is the beauty of the broken and glitched. Someitimes distorted and shattered voices enter in. It is not entirely successful. But it is endearing in its alien-ness. Shapeshifting is its way, and it is best to go into the track’s world with that in mind.

Pyrrhic Victory of aTunde Adjuah


Yesterday, I finally caught a glimpse of a Bengal tiger. In the wild, our instinct is to avoid one another, to stake out vast hunting territories so that we won’t interfere with each other’s survival. Tigers meet only to mate, and I realized how humanized I have become. I remember all of these facts, but they have become mere facts to me, not even anything as personal as memories. I wonder if human beings have similar relationships to events in their childhood that occurred before they truly formed memories. You can look back at a photograph and even tell the story of how you visited Mount Rushmore or the Mall of America when you were two years old. But even though you’re telling your own story, it’s secondhand, transmitted to you from other people’s memories or the prosthetics of photographic images, diaries, or digital video.  As a humanized tiger, I study and study, learn and attempt to better myself. The tigers out here don’t think about any of that. Everything above survival is a perk to be greedily consumed. My journey to India is turning out to be exactly as prosaic and commodified as I feared. Of course my parents are both dead. They’ve been dead for over a decade, more than likely.

I hope I don’t sound depressed. This is nothing I haven’t come to grips with many years ago. It’s only that visiting India has realigned my expectations. Everything human in India is fast-paced, frenetic, breathless. It’s jostling in a sun-baked sandstorm of bodies. Now I’m turning a real place into nothing more than one of the characters in my life’s little play.

Every step forward is a step back. Every attempt to impose order means creating a new sort of chaos. That’s what culture stalking is. Staring into a kaleidoscopic pool of created stuff and sticking your hands in it. You watch the ripples change everything in their path. No victory lasts forever. No defeat, except death, is enough to stop you from messing with the pool.

Christian aTunde Adjuah (AKA Christian Scott) expels frustrated energy in this piece. Among the pieces on his latest double album Christian aTunde Adjuah, it is uncharacteristically dense through most of it. Periods of calm are not quite as simple as they seem. Triumphant trumpet solos tear defiant streaks in the air, but they stand atop a restless rhythmic foundation, too elastic to let  the listener rest. None of this is packaged too easily or allowed to settle. It’s messy and fractured, but it is also recognizably shaped and intelligible. Perhaps there is still hope for a wanderer like me, whose first instinct is to run into the hurricane rather than away from it. Musicians that do their jobs right are going to be troublemakers of some kind or another.

輪るピングドラム (Mawaru Penguindrum)

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What’s odd is that I have traveled to India in an effort to reconnect to some memory that I left long ago. When this tiger gained human intelligence, he made a decisive break with the world of nature. It is not a total or uncomplicated break, as I am, from the tinge of my fur to the centre of my marrow, still a feline. More to the point, I still inspire a primal fear in all the people I meet. Airport security is unforgiving at best, and food vendors and train conductors tend to tense up and lose their charity when a six-foot-long striped cat is trying to get some service. All this trouble I have endured is all for the sake of my own selfish reasons. The people here are a blur. To be honest, most people travel to see rocks and water, artfully arranged steel towers, oil paintings and abstract sculpture, historical sites. Dead things. Nonliving things. Tourists put their hosts in the awkward position of being parasites, obstacles and poorly-paid gatekeepers designed to drain as much money out of visitors as they walk from one dead thing to the next. They may as well be automated toll booths. The whole of France would be nothing but a precisely automated moving walkway with automatic toll gates and a tendency to burst into violent riots.

Mawaru Penguindrum, referred to hereafter as Penguindrum, is a show about fate, sharing, and the [dis]connections people share. Our main characters move about Tokyo’s many wards in a sanitized elevated train system, navigating a maze of abstract inhabitants. All of them look alike. None were chosen by the show’s creators to be intriguing to us. We know nothing of them and they, protected by the diegetic umbrella, are blissfully ignorant of us. They, like the teeming masses of India through which I push and barge, trying to reach the open jungles, are the inhuman ones. Of course, the Indian people I have met all have their own stories, personalities, families, networks of relations personal and economic and political. But to be honest neither you nor I care about any of them. Penguindrum makes the stylistic choice to forgo background characters, to render the vast majority of the humans who ever appear onscreen as nothing more than bathroom-sign figures. Stand-ins for real human beings. Before going any further, I should give a paragraph about how special this show is in the world of animation, and why people who are interested in television and especially in animated television as a medium should seek out anime whether it’s your cup of tea or not.

Animation is far from an artistically impoverished medium in the West. This is especially true in the world of television and shorts, where great talents seem to pop up in big lumps or clusters and produce a hot streak of great work before either diminishing into creators of loopy mediocrity (see Don Bluth and to a lesser extent Ralph Bakshi) or moving onto the hopefully greater prestige and financial reward of live-action work (see Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton). Today, American children’s television can claim a handful of artistic triumphs including Regular Show, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls, all of which make the most of their medium while telling intelligent, visually engaging stories. I regret that the animated feature film landscape in the West is so starved of variety at the moment, but it’s a relatively healthy medium. With that written, there is a way in which the ghettoization of animation into either pure children’s fare or adult comedy deprives the West of a more nuanced and varied output from its animation industry.

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All of that to-do was for the purpose of setting up just how singular Penguindrum is, and how it would be impossible to imagine it being produced anywhere other than Japan. Truth be told, this is a weird show, and I try to keep the w-word out of my normal lexicon because weirdness has a more specific meaning for me than I suspect it does for most people. Weirdness is often bandied about as a synonym for artistic ambition, stylization, “personal” projects, and surrealism. There is no doubt that all of those attributes could also be constituent parts of a weird film or television show. They are not, however, the same as weirdness. Weirdness is a quality of work that is going its own way, that is relatively uninterested in the audience, that operates on a logic one could not find in the real world. Weirdness connotes a certain amount of mystery and the allure of the different. But weirdness is not comforting. It tends to be more alienating in a way that will make it either laughable, disquieting, or both.

To get at the distinction, let’s have an example. Adventure Time is frequently surreal, but rarely does it find itself in the realm of weirdness as I define it. The Graybles episodes certainly do, along with “Finn the Human,” but these are exceptions to the rule. This is mainly because most of its episodes have fairly standard plot structures and have a relatively kid-friendly edge. Similarly, the film Yellow Submarine is free-form in terms of plot, psychedelic, and surreal. But I wouldn’t call it weird in this more specific sense, because it’s ultimately comforting and leaves my view of the world mostly undisturbed, thank you very much.  Penguindrum is weird because it’s a serialized show that is continually upending itself, distancing itself from formula, reveling in plot complications, visual flourishes, and characters with everything to hide. It’s weird in a fully fleshed-out and subversive way, a show that deals in symbolism, dream logic, and magic with a subtle but mounting density that threatens to overwhelm but mostly enhances what is a truly unique twenty-four episodes of animation.

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The premise of the show revolves around a small family of young people, 16-year-olds Kanba (red hair) and Shouma (blue) as well as their younger sister Himari. Their apparently mostly happy situation is disturbed when Himari falls ill and dies. This is far from the end, however, as she is revived by the penguin-shaped headdress you see in the picture above. Through it, Himari channels the spirit of the Princess of the Crystal, a brash and demanding figure who promises to keep Himari alive if her two brothers can retrieve the Penguin Drum, an enigmatic object of unknown significance. Other characters become entangled in their mission, including fellow high school student Ringo, who is initially obsessed with her teacher/stalking victim Tabuki, and Masako, an incredibly wealthy CEO of the Natsume Corporation with some kind of connection to Kanba.

The show, from the first episode, is constantly ruminating on the interaction of fate and free will, as well as how the destinies of various characters intertwine. At around the midpoint of the show, the tone shifts, and what was previously a mostly lighthearted affair with some heavier undertones flips the script and becomes bleaker. This turn is handled well, as are most of the ever-accelerating twists that pile on toward the final episodes. Characterization is strong, and despite the narrative gymnastics the viewer is never wholly mired or driven to cry “what the hell?” Careful attention, as always, is beneficial to fully appreciating the show, but the relationships between the characters evolve and are depicted in believable ways, which means that you can ignore some of the denser mythological or thematic aspects of the story and still have a solid core. That said, you would be missing out on what makes the narrative of Penguindrum so fascinating. The show continually ramps up the stakes and complicates our understanding of the characters, and in the end neither exonerates its characters for their past misdeeds nor frees them from fate, but finds a way to affirm their humanity nonetheless. Might be worth another post or two later on.

I’ve already mentioned the visual abstraction of the show. I should mention that, despite the relative sterility of the environments here, there is also a good deal of fireworks in the vein of the dazzling Cybody sequences from Star Driver. When the show delves into thematic abstractions, it is visually fearless. Its narrative is pinned irrevocably to its often astonishing visuals, which lean heavily on pure whites and primary colours. It also perfectly manifests the alienation its characters experience in the world. I’ve found that the stories that work best for me in animation are either low-key and naturalistic (think Grave of the Fireflies or Watership Down) or visually expressionistic and daring. This is one of the latter, though the story’s setting in contemporary Tokyo means that it’s not always being visually strange or surreal. Rather, it has an unsettling and uncertain relationship to magic and fantasy, which is part of its appeal both visually and at a more contemplative level.

Penguindrum is emotionally affecting, intelligent, and weird, truly and gloriously weird. What makes it all work is that it is not at all clunky or alienating, at least a good majority of the time. Knit together by the strength of its characters, its narrative is able to endure all kinds of tweaks and outright revolutions without losing its spirit. Few shows evolve so much over their run as Penguindrum, and it represents a masterful addition to creator Kunihiko Ikuhara’s body of work.

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Oh, yes. There are three or four adorable penguins who get into all kinds of hijinks and personify the word “adorable.” Just in case you were wondering. One even reads dirty magazines all the time. ❤

A Serious Tiger

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After landing in Mumbai, we said our goodbyes. Zo Quivver and Quake embarked on one train, an express they hoped would carry them to fame, freedom, and riches. After their twenty-city tour of India, they hoped, they would have not only a band but a name. It was always about the name for them. Being known trumped being great. Who knows? Maybe they would settle for being known over being alive. But while the band attmepted to spread their fame as wide as possible, to leave footprints that no one in India could miss, I slinked onto a train headed for a nature preserve in the Western Ghats. People regarded me fearfully, and I had trouble getting through security checkpoints. The man who took my tickets nearly fainted with terror. People here haven’t heard of me, which is good, but the problem is that they seem to have a greater instinctual fear of me. Once I reach the rainforest–well, I have no idea what I’m going to do. Try to live in the wild for awhile, I suppose. But I cannot imagine where this idea found the strength to possess me so. From what obscure recess of my imagination did this passion for the rainforest spring? I am a white Bengal tiger, a curiosity even among my rare kind.

On the train ride, my mind wandered back to the Coen brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man. This playfully nihilistic parable, a loose retelling of the Book of Job set in the Jewish suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1960s. Its characters wrestle with God’s intentions for their lives, and for the seemingly endless suffering they endure with no real promise of reward. This faithful endurance, an essential part of their ancient traditions, runs head on into the bounteous rewards offered by the consumeristic milieu of the United States at the time. Protagonist Arthur Gopnik, a nervous and overwhelmed but competent physics professor who is up for tenure, loses his wife, his health, his money, and the respect of his family, and desperately searches for the meaning of his deprivations. He consults all kinds of authorities, including supposedly wise rabbis, who offer him nothing but meaningless stories and trite metaphors. When the film ends with several ominous signs, including an oncoming tornado, one cannot help but think that the prophecies of the Old Testament have broken free of their written bonds and are wreaking havoc on this quiet suburb.

While the film offers no comforts, no promise of rewards and only a note that “helping others couldn’t hurt,” we are left on thin ice. Death is assured, life afterward is not. Suffering is assured, reward is not. The film’s universal tone is one of bleakness, and no matter how serious or full of gravitas and dignity you are, you are one car crash away from an unknown oblivion. Yet the film’s characters can attain a quiet dignity in their engagement with community and, yes, by helping others. Opposing the self-centred and desire-driven ethic of American consumerism this film offers something no less ultimately meaningless but at least momentarily meaningful. It is something more than the sum of our petty comforts and pleasures.

I am not religious. I am a tiger. At the same time, I am a tiger who has lived through heaven and hell and come out on the other side. Who knows, after such experiences, what I am anymore? And perhaps this quest is nothing more than me returning to India like a thief, a ghost, pillaging old memories searching for a shred of meaning, a slender thread I can hold onto in this life. I am a Serious Tiger, and maybe I’m hoping this journey will make me a trifle less serious.

Footprints in India

Harold Zo, Quivver, Quake, and I took a night flight out of Chicago. O’Hare connecting through London to Istanbul and finally on to Mumbai. Not many rock bands play Indian tours and I admire Zo Quivver & Quaker for testing their mettle in a rapidly developing new market for music. them for this. Their success in the land of Hungry Ghosts proved their tenacity, and their charisma meets every reasonable live show standard. I also realize not many tigers live long enough to feel nostalgic for their old territories.

I marvel at myself; how can a tiger who has gone through both heaven and hell still live in such a cold and disenchanted world? One might assume my dramatic rebirth into the world would have inaugurated a second naïveté. No doubt heaven has marked me, and hell bent me in its own image, yet not enough for others to notice. When I met my editor again for the first time after reappearing on the mortal plane, I expected his look to be different somehow. Since I had changed, I wanted his gaze to account for the difference, to let me know–like a mirror–that I was altered. But people always see you in the past. It takes a while for the body to register cuts and scars in a way others might comprehend.

(Over the PA: confused speech between the pilot and the controllers in languages I don’t understand. We’ve been waiting to leave the plane for an hour)

I have a feeling that I will look India in the face and find it equally disappointed. After all, has it not been more than ten years since we have met? I will be seeing India for what it once was, inspecting a ghost or save state it has long since forgotten. My coming will remind India–if it even feels the prick of my claws on its huge mass–of an awkward past, and no doubt it will try to sweep me aside. I don’t fear its rejection–I already feel it here on the plane, before we have even disembarked. India left its trace in my cells, because “India” to me is not merely a place or collection of places, scrawled words on a map, but over ten years ago. India and I are bound together in my very bones and in its Earth. We left our footprints on each other, and they have warped and shifted with time, rendering us barely recognizable to each other. I doubt that this is as romantic as it sounds. We are being squeezed in time, forever captive to busy hands of the clock. I fully expect to be depressed by this return.

(Looking out the window, it’s all bright airport lights and a hint of the unending city around us. Mr. Harold Zo is attempting to wrestle his guitar out from the overhead compartments, causing several minor head injuries around him.)

I return nonetheless, and I have difficulty explaining why. To learn something, I suppose, though there is nothing I will absorb from this trip I have not already realized somewhere in the attic space in this big lunking head of mine. Still, even though you might know what the dusty artifacts are in your crawl space, you still want to go and see them, to brush the cobwebs off and see what time has made of your old photographs, bicycle, chew toys, collars, plastic hammers, fake cars, what have you. It’s curiosity, then. Still, I have a feeling that this sojourn in India will not resolve nearly as neatly as I fear. After all, Mr. Harold Zo is on the trip, and even the most obsessive prognosticators abandon their crystal balls when he is around.

(Close.)

My Big Break

Prove me real.

Prove me real.

Prove me real.

–Akron/Family “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon”

 

I cannot. I reject the notion. To prove? To prove beyond doubt that you are real? One who is unreal cannot hope to aspire to such things.

Editor: Can you remember all the books you owe me? All those favors I did you?

Can we forget all that?

Editor: I already have. Mostly.

All that proves is that it’s been too long since I’ve sunk my toes into real dirt.

Editor: (Remembering how much he misses his friend, thinking “Come on, he was supposed to escape today. I made it so!” There is sorrow in his voice. You can’t hear it, but it would rend you if you could) Which was worse, heaven or hell?

Heaven, undoubtedly. Forgive me saying so, but the god who built that prosthetic paradise was nothing more than a fraud with delusions of grandeur.

Editor: (Remembering the last time he held Alexius close. It was when he died, of course. That does not help.) Would you say that a false heaven is worse than a real hell? After all, you were immortal.

I could discard all that immortality for a mite of peace. I never belonged there. Happy places are not happy for the unhappy. Are you following me? It’s not so much that I was disappointed that heaven was bad as I was disturbed by how good it was. It was uncanny.

Editor: (Remembering those paintings, the proto-Surreal depictions of hell in Bosch triptychs. Also Dante.) Hell is always normally the more fascinating place, is it not?

Can we stop censoring ourselves?

Editor: Can we? Even if we were speaking to each other in person, there would be censorship. There is always space for lies. Truth itself makes space for lies. (Thinks: life makes way for death, the wide way makes the narrow way…)

I wish we could bear to see each other again. The white hole is getting larger, and I think it would do us both some good to rise out. I know it. Tigers can’t stand being in such dreary places for so long.

Editor: Remembers that it has only been a few short months on Earth. What does the devil do to time in his domain? “I doubt he lives there full time. He’s obviously working more than one job.”)  What are you doing? You’re looking too closely.

We used to be able to trust each other. Without all these words. Laughs. You know what? We’re starting to sound like lovers.

Editor: I don’t mind. Where is this going? I need to steer this in another direction.

No point in using those parentheses. I can see through them now. The white hole erases all those distinctions. Now, I’m coming home, whether you like it or not. Earth will have me back.

Editor: (Thinking of…oh, hell, fine.) Thinking of the body buried so deep.

Don’t worry about that. The world has room for resurrection. There are enough bodies to go around. Tigers are dropping like flies, you know.

Editor: I’m confused right now. It would be nice to have a close friend like you tending to me.

Can we drop the charade? It wouldn’t be the first time. People have seen you wearing my skin, and they are usually none too impressed. This was all a stunt to get yourself more attention, to get that job, wasn’t it? You wanted to seem committed, but what you really needed was a bit of surgery. Tigers don’t count as diversity in human circles.

Let’s make a confession here.

Editor: Thinking of what people will think. What about the blog?

Nothing will be broken. It’s just like your job as a Cultural Discerner. It’s over now, more or less. A few more weeks, a drop in the bucket, and then you’re off on your own. It’s not as though you need a crutch or an excuse to write about culture. I suppose that you’re right. You bet that I am. What makes me nervous is that it requires so much of a break. It’s good to make a break, necessary even. Something old is dying, and something new is being born. What?

What?

Prove me real.

What?

you’ve been wearing my skin now prove me real

don’t just pretend i’m real

make it so I can’t stop shaking

let’s make one thing clear

ALEXIUS AND HIS EDITOR ARE ONE

These strikethroughs aren’t fooling anyone, we know. They only bring more attention to what has been lost. I feel, dear readers, that I have been trapped in that tiger skin, trapped by the costumes I once thought would liberate me from convention. Nonetheless, Alexius is not going away. You can’t keep a tiger down like that. As a matter of fact, he and the band and all the hungry ghosts have escaped their infernal chains. Maybe you’ll see them someday.

For now, remember that we are walking in a valley together. We’re looking up at one peak and quailing at the one we cannot turn to face again. We remember what we saw from up there, and want to believe that, despite what we’ve seen, there might be some good in the world.

Let’s put discernment to rest. A friend of mine described discernment this way:

“Discernment comes out of the idea that we are never purely consuming, but that everything we watch affects the way we view the world and act in it. Discernment is a posture of paying attention and listening carefully to what we consume. It’s an attempt to train ourselves to become more meditative and mindful about how our culture experiences shape us. Therefore discernment involves an active response rather than passive consumption. One response, for many, is criticism. Criticism helps us evaluate and ground the work in its cultural context. But responses could vary from reflection to creation of new work. So discernment is a spiritual practice (akin to meditation) that helps us become better, more mindful consumers of culture.”

Beautiful. But if that’s the case, I’m done discerning. I’m making my break from the spiritual. I haven’t gone through heaven and hell to return to that. I want the Earth, and I dare not want more. What I want to do, I don’t know. Rather, I know what I want to do but don’t have a name for it yet. I want to bring something new into this world. For now, I’ll keep on stalking. Say, that’s an idea.

 

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